Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Should We Be Defending Facebook's Mood Experiment?

No mincing of words here. Facebook had no ethical or legal right to tinker with anyone's emotions. To use a similarly lame comparison I see underlying a recent NYT opinion defense of it, it's like the author said, "Well other companies are doing it, too, only FB decided to admit it." Does that correct such an egregious action on the part of a corporation? Are we just lab rats to be used for whatever purposes a corporation pleases? We faceless people are just there for the taking? If you're thinking that's not acceptable, believe me, so am I and I thought this thing might have been laid to rest, but it hasn't. More has come out and how much more will? Who else besides Facebook will admit to social media tampering with our thinking on anything?

Trust me, when I say that I always try to see something good from anything bad that has happened, but this "bright side" would seem to be the exception. We keep hearing about that "slippery slope" in so many things and yet this NYT's author chose to go there and defend it in an attempt to salvage who knows what? Am I suspicious of his motives? I don't think so, but his naivete, yes.

Social experiments and social engineering are two of our most dangerous areas of research outside the labs that handle pathogens. Maybe they're even more dangerous because this stuff is insidious and there's no high security protections against the results that will surely spread and be used in ways many never intended. But can I truly say this was unintended on FB's end of the deal? No, I can't and that's very disturbing. You wouldn't do research if you didn't expect some benefit from it.

Have we begun to come around when ethics are going to be put into people's back pockets to be quietly dismissed as when Davenport Hooker began his experiments on aborted fetuses in the name of science? Ethics, at that time, did not factor into the plan he devised and this glorious tradition was carried on further by other eminent scientists. These fellows not only injected students with adrenalin but subjected them to a series of disturbing situations. Then, as I read it, there was no follow-up on the damage they may have done. How will FB attempt to see if they did any harm, or isn't that part of the plan and do they feel no responsibility here? And, please, don't tell me everyone is so very pleased to have been part of such an historic experiment. Self-report is unreliable and we all know it.

Can we compare what FB did with what these professionals in psychology did? Sure we can because the situations are quite similar in some regard. For one thing, it was all done in the name of science with little to no regard for ethics. Same thing with FB who got the whitewash approval of academics for their work. Academics who, in my opinion, failed miserably in their charge to protect anyone subjected to any type of experiment, psychological or otherwise.  Sure, it was done on the Internet and it involved 700K people so how can you expect FB to do any follow-up? Oh, please, don't give me that line. If you couldn't insure no harm, you had no right to pompously go forth with this plan.

And this wasn't the only "experiment" that FB did because they involved themselves in yet more extensive excursions into social psychology and social media evaluation for effect. As the Times' article indicates: "In another experiment, Facebook randomly divided 61 million American users into three camps on Election Day in 2010, and showed each group a different, nonpartisan get-out-the-vote message (or no message). The results showed that certain messages significantly increased the tendency of people to vote — not just of people who used Facebook, but even their friends who didn’t." This, I believe, is called social contagion.

Now FB is going into the lobbying field? No doubt their "research" is going to find fertile ground in the minds of K Street lobbyists. How many new bills will be presented to Congress? How many elections will be skewed? What social issues will be manipulated? Your life is about to get quite a bit more difficult as you are pushed from one side to the other, not knows who to believe and what they've done to influence you in insidious ways.

I cannot accept FB's reasoning behind all of this social engineering where they indicate they wish to expand our understanding of human psychology and communication. I think courses in the psychology of politics have explained all of it as has extensive research in social influence. So, guys, this doesn't wash with me. You're not just a means of keeping in touch with friends, you are a juggernaut rolling on to greater profits in whatever way you can.

Do you defend what Facebook is doing to you without your knowledge or consent or what they're doing to your kids? Think about it.